Thursday, September 30, 2010
For me the distinction is that "left neoliberals" are people who don't understand themselves as neoliberals. They think that their commitments to anti-racism, to anti-sexism, to anti-homophobia constitute a critique of neoliberalism. But if you look at the history of the idea of neoliberalism you can see fairly quickly that neoliberalism arises as a kind of commitment precisely to those things.
Yes - neoliberalism, the political philosophy of Hayek and Friedman, of Thatcher, Reagan and Pinochet, whose intellectual sources include the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt and the fascist sympathiser Ludwig von Mises. The ruling class praxis whose first practical expression was the fascist coup in Chile. The ideology of the New Right whose hallmark was a virulent attack on the gains of the Sixties, including a legal war against gay rights, a cultural battle to force women back into domesticity, and a racialised drug war that resulted in soaring rates of black imprisonment. That neoliberalism arose as a kind of commitment to feminism, gay rights, anti-racism, etc. Moreover:
it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right.Meanwhile, the actual Tea Partiers seek a "return to the principles of Austrian Economics, and redirect the economy back to one of incentives to save and invest" and demand that the government "cut spending, balance the budget, and institute a plan for paying down debt."
Michaels' brew of logical inversion, fancy, tenuous connections and adolescent provocation should earn him a television spot.
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Tuesday, September 28, 2010
The Labour Party’s arch-Blairites rallied at Manchester’s Comedy Store last Sunday—but there were more tears than laughter after David Miliband’s defeat in the Labour leadership election.
“I sense there’s a subdued atmosphere at the moment,” Ben Bradshaw MP told the hushed crowd. “I think it’s still sinking in for some people.”
This was supposed to be a Labour Party conference fringe event hosted by the Progress “thinktank”—a hard neoliberal faction within the party.
But it seemed more like a wake for David Miliband’s leadership campaign.
“I was one of David’s co-chairs of his campaign,” said Jim Murphy MP, almost choking on the words.
“You said in your kind introduction that I’m a good organiser… but clearly I wasn’t good enough.”
By the time failed London mayoral candidate Oona King took to the stage, there was an inescapable feeling that power had finally drained away from the Blairites.
“We had a bruising leadership campaign. The result was a difficult moment,” she said, her voice breaking.
Going on to speak about her mayoral campaign, she added, “I really, really learned who my friends are—and it turned out that most of them are in this room.”
By then the room was half-empty.
In fact, while I think Cameron is more pragmatic on Europe than his Thatcherite politics and EU alliances would suggest, it would be foolhardy for him to try to take on the Europhobes in his party when he doesn't have to. The backbenchers acquiesced in his backtracking on the Lisbon Treaty so as not to divide the party ahead of the election, but many have sworn to continue the fight with Bill Cash's money. Meanwhile, Cameron's capitulation on the question of whether ministers are eligible to join the 1922 Committee showed the limits of his power over the parliamentary party. The issue of Europe crippled the Tories in the 1990s, and could well do so again if Cameron's authority is weakened. It isn't hard to see why, as this issue gets to the conflict at the centre of the Conservative Party's social base, and thus to the inconsistencies in its ideological posture.
The Tories' alternative to the social democratic settlement since the mid-1970s has been to mobilise a politics of 'the nation'. Their promise was that they could restore national competitiveness through liberal economic reforms, defend national sovereignty in Europe, maintain national identity by controlling immigration, maintain the nation's global standing through the Atlantic alliance (without which it would have been difficult to prosecute the Falklands war), and restore the authority of the national state by ruthlessly imposing public order. They decided that they didn't have to appeal to working class voters with redistributive, social democratic measures - they could sell a nationhood in which everyone had some sort of stake. This temporarily retarded the long-term narrowing of the Conservative base, but it was exhausted by 1989, and notably it was after this period that conflicts between the different models of 'globalisation' contained in this view started to come to the fore, with John Major haplessly trying to reconcile the party's factions. For while Tory nationalism would seem to conflict with those processes of globalisation that erode state capacity, the truth is that the Eurosceptics have always endorsed a more aggressive form of US-led globalisation than the Europhiles, who tended to be 'one nation' Conservatives.
There were always plenty of 'sceptics' in the parliamentary Conservative Party, enough to force Ted Heath to rely on cross-party support on the 1975 EEC referendum. Thatcher was herself a Eurosceptic, though her early battles over Europe were of relatively little significance. But for as long as the Cold War continued, the consolidation of Western Europe as a bulwark against the USSR was important enough to ensure that these divisions were not disabling. By the time of Maastricht, however, there was a loud and raucous 'awkward squad' on the Tory backbenches that was willing to batter its own leadership over the issue. Europe was now more of a threat than an ally for these Tories - with a reunified Germany, the danger was in a Franco-German axis rather than a Soviet axis. You may think that I'm over-egging this, but the existence of neologisms like "EUSSR" suggests that many in the Tory right really see the EU as some sort of pinko attack on Britain.
The outlook of the 'sceptics' was not simply narrow and xenophobic, however, though the propaganda often was. It was just that they were allied with those sectors of capital who either looked further afield for profits than the European markets, or who still looked for Britain to punch above its weight in the world, or who resented new labour protections and restrictions that might come with monetary union, or who didn't fancy their chances of competing effectively with French and German capital in an englarged single market. Small businesses in particular, the Tory backbone throughout the Thatcher era, were repelled by the idea that 'Eurocrats' might set rules on wages, safety laws, or even taxation, that they could ill afford. Lending spurious coherence to these diverse gripes and grievances was the Tory fetish of the nation-state, whose organic evolution over centuries seemed to set it in far better standing than a bureaucratic, rationalist imposition like the EU. The sovereignty of the British state had been a long-standing Tory theme since the French Revolution, and this seemed like the ideal issue over which to rally disaffected voters to patriotic defence.
Divisions had started to come to the fore in the late 1980s over the Exchange Rate Mechanism and moves toward a single currency, which Nigel Lawson, Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe supported, and which Thatcher opposed. Howe and Lawson had secretly threatened to resign over Thatcher's intransigence and Eurosceptic speeches in Brussels, with the Chancellor operating a de facto ERM policy by pegging the pound to the Mark. Thatcher's attack on Delors' plan for economic and monetary union, published in 1989, further exacerbated splits in the Tory leadership, which contributed to a poor showing in the European elections that year. It was Howe's resignation from the cabinet in 1990 over Thatcher's anti-EU speech at a European Council meeting in Rome, signalling that Britain would never join a European single currency, that helped precipitate Michael Heseltine's challenge for the leadership, Thatcher's later resignation and Major's emergence as Thatcher's preferred alternative to Heseltine as Tory leader.
But while Major was a centrist on Europe, he had already persuaded the cabinet, as Chancellor, to join the ERM, a decision that was to weigh heavily on his premiership. Major demonstrated his commitment to Atlanticism by joining with George Bush pere in mauling Iraq during Desert Storm, but also wanted to take his party into the Maastricht Treaty, which would draw Britain into a unified European political and economic structure. To make it more palatable to the sceptics, he negotiated opt-outs from the single currency and from the provisions of the 'social chapter'. But this wasn't enough, and the party whips had to work overtime to avoid embarrassing defeats, some of which nevertheless came. The power of the whips comes from the fact that voting in the Commons is public, and thus MPs can be threatened with sanctions or offered patronage to vote one way or another, with no prospect of their being able to conceal how they behaved in the end. The fact that the rebels were able to repeatedly bloody the government's nose, with a Labour opposition opportunistically backing them up, showed that the MPs were unafraid for their careers because they knew themselves to be far from isolated either in the parliamentary party, or among the constituency party members, or among the base. Not only that, but they blamed the Europhiles for leading Britain into the disastrous Exchange Rate Mechanism, with the resulting losses of Black Wednesday destroying the Tories for at least the next election. They were confident that after defeat, it would fall to them to save the Tories from electoral oblivion - it took the Tories three successive defeats and almost a decade of pound-saving to disabuse themselves of that idea.
A survey of Tory MPs opinions carried out in 1991 for the Economic and Social Research Council can help explain why this issue can be so crippling for the Conservatives. It found that while the overwhelming majority, some 95%, favoured further privatization in some form, the parliamentary party divided almost evenly into pro-EC and anti-EC camps. There was a strong correlation between social and economic conservatism, and hostility to the EC. The most virulently free market hyperglobalisers, such as Peter Lilley, Michael Howard and Michael Portillo, were the most hostile to Europe.
There is a logic to this. The form of neoliberal statecraft that the Tories embraced after 1975 held that the state, to be properly sovereign, should be insulated from external pressures whether domestic or foreign. The state's sovereignty is thus compromised if it engages in social democratic and welfarist policies, or attempts to restrict capital flows on behalf of labour, or redistributes wealth. It has become enmeshed in a network of interest groups. In that sense, 'globalisation' may be said to erode state capacity but it erodes precisely those capacities that neoliberals do not believe it has any business exercising. It still leaves a sovereign state with the power to promote international competitiveness through the right fiscal and monetary policies, to defend national interests through military competition, and to regulate migration flows. But integration into a supra-state, centralised body cedes sovereignty on precisely those issues of monetary and fiscal policy that right-wing Tories believe the nation-state should have control.
The Tory right's opposition to European integration has tended to reflect the views of a minority sector of capital, largely small businesses. The Institute for Directors, the Federation of Small Businesses and Business for Sterling have been the main business institutions opposing the single currency, for example. By contrast, for a majority of big businesses - as for the majority of centrist conservatives - it's just good sense for Britain to get in on an economic system that gives them larger consumer and labour markets with stable exchange rates. Polls of CBI members have tended to find majorities actively favouring membership of the single currency, with only 15% specifically opposed, and some of the largest companies (eg. BA, Nestle, BAe, Dyson, Ford, BT, Kellogs, Reuters, Unilever, etc...) have dedicated resources to the 'Britain in Europe' business lobby group, which was launched by Blair, Brown, Heseltine, Clark and Kennedy, and for which Danny Alexander was once a spin doctor. The nature of the political coalition assembled here shows that the project of European integration has only superficially broad support - drawn from all three parties, but all of it clustered around a narrow segment of centrist, pro-business opinion.
Today, Tory pro-Europeans have a lot of clout with Cameron. Ken Clarke is in the cabinet, officially 'agreeing to disagree' with the Tory Eurosceptic line, and probably having more in common with Cable, Clegg, Huhne and Alexander than his fellow Tories. But the ideological space for Conservative Party Europhiles to occupy is shrinking. Psephological evidence shows that Tory voters have moved to the right over most questions of nationality - race, immigration and Europe among them - over the last decade. This preceded the global recession, but has surely been aggravated by it. The hostility to the EU among the Tory core vote is combustible. Admittedly, there are more pressing matters afoot - but the trouble with the EU is its alarming propensity to act as a lightning rod for a whole variety of concerns about nanny-statism, economic inefficiency, finance capital, bureaucracy, regulations, taxes, immigration, British sovereignty, etc etc. Part of Cameron's delicate dance of office is to unite this increasingly isolationist, reactionary base with the big business patrons for whom the Tories have existed since 1832, as well as with pro-European centrists - and that is becoming a tougher and tougher sell. There's no winning here. If Cameron tries to drag the Tories farther into the EU, he risks losing core votes to UKIP. If he tries to withdraw farther from the EU or reverse his position on a Treaty referendum again, he risks losing the centrists, his business allies, and pro-EU Tories such as Ken Clark.
The crisis of the Eurozone is grave. Recently, I hear that Merkel and Sarkozy had a stand-up blazing row over the former's ruthless pursuit of German national interest and refusal to set aside a fund to protect the Euro - Merkel eventually capitulated, but not before Sarkozy had shouted himself hoarse. The Franco-German axis is in serious peril. In that circumstance, emergencies are bound to arise. And it wouldn't take a great deal, I suspect, to get this lightly bound coalition tearing itself to ribbons over the issue.
Sunday, September 26, 2010
Just a quick addendum. If there was one member one vote in the Labour Party, this is what the results would have looked like in the first round:
|PLP||CLP||Unions|| Totals |
|Ed Miliband||84||37980 ||87585 ||125649|
|David Miliband||111 ||55905 ||58191||114205|
In the United States, the state of Arizona has passed a new law that makes it a crime for immigrants to be in public without carrying documents, and which allows police to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant whatever the circumstances. This isn’t uncontested, and the immigrant movements are one of the signs of real hope in America. The ‘tea party’ Right is also leading a vicious campaign not just against the so-called ‘ground zero mosque’, but against a wide array of actual mosques or mosque-building projects. In Italy and Hungary, there have been fresh pogroms against Roma gypsies. Across the continent, the far right has made gains – in Holland and Belgium, for example, and recently in Sweden.
The era of the ‘war on terror’ has, of course, seen a revival in civilizational discourse that sees Muslims in particular as a barbarian and antipathetic menace, a solvent of ‘Western values’. Thus, in a very obvious way, imperialism has intersected with and amplified already existing domestic racism towards largely South Asian and North African minorities in Western Europe. The global economic crisis is accelerating this, partly by the way in which it intensifies competition between different groups of workers, so that migrant labourers are increasingly seen as a problem rather than a solution, but partly also because of the way in which it adds appeal to the false security offered by integrationist models of nationality and citizenship.
With echoes of the 1930s so abundant, this accelerating political polarisation should not surprise us. But the racism of the 2010s will not be the racism of the 1930s. This is not the colonial world any more. Antisemitism, though it still matters, is unlikely to be the major focus of European racism - although it has an occult fascination for the authentic far right – and it is certainly marginal in the United States. The primarily somatic discourses of race have been largely supplanted, notwithstanding the confused and ultimately hapless attempts to revive biological discourse through the genome. Not that biological reductionism is irrelevant here. As I will come to argue, it has played an important role in legitimising new forms of racism. But the idea that there are colour-coded races – white, black, red, yellow – or that you could refer to someone meaningfully as being of the ‘Mongol’ race, for example, has become faintly absurd.
Today, in place of rigid schemas assigning people to races based on some supposed ‘bloodline’ or ancestry in an original human family – Aryan, Semitic or Hamitic as the case may be - we increasingly have a slightly less static, less schematic, but nonetheless essentialist hierarchy of cultures: we have moved from colour to culture, from body to belief. A recent example of this, though seemingly a relatively benign one, was when Richard Dawkins described the Pope as the head of the second most evil religion in the world. Number one, I suspect, was Islam, which has since the colonial era been characterised by its opponents in the tropes of fanaticism, irrationalism and violence. This should also alert us to the changing gender codes to which racism relates. Racism has always been bound up with patriarchy, with the nuclear family as the privileged site of racial reproduction. In ‘old Europe’, as it were, the supremacy of white men was exercised over women and children as much as over colonial subjects. However, there has long been a trend, dubbed ‘imperial feminism’, wherein non-white men are depicted as being particularly savage in their treatment of women – and thus, the defence of empire was seen as somehow coextensive with the protection of women. ‘Imperial feminism’ in this sense has come to the fore – we’ve even had attempts by the boneheads of the English Defence League to claim that they support womens’ rights. They even purport to have a ‘gay division’, which is probably as populous as their ‘Newport Pagnell division’
And that shift has facilitated a certain amount of confusion about what racism is, and has provided an alibi not merely for anti-Muslim racism, but for more traditional forms of racism that single out, for example, young black men. The latter were the subject of a short screed by the Spectator’s in-house provocateur and shock-commentator Rod Liddle last year. The basis of his attack was that these men were responsible for the overwhelming majority of robberies, muggings and violent crimes in the capital. The statistics for convictions did not actually back this up, although intriguingly, statistics on police actions against individuals for these crimes was later cited as if it did – in fact, a Home Office report published some years back pointed out that research on youth crime had shown that while young white men were far more likely to have committed a crime in a given a year, young black and Asian men were more likely to have been proceeded against by police. However, the empirical claim was almost secondary. When challenged on his claim, Liddle explained that he wasn’t talking about ‘race’, but about ‘culture’. He suggested that there was a particular culture among these men that valued and encouraged anti-social attitudes and behaviours. This implies that there is this ‘thing’ called culture which is not a complex, evolving, interwoven process, but which is soluble into discrete, relatively imporous and stable entities. This, ironically, is precisely the reified model of culture that was promoted by the official multiculturalism that Liddle is attacking.
This sordid little tale is representative, I think, of the broader trend. It exemplifies the shift that I’ve been speaking of, from biological reductionism to cultural essentialism, and what I want to do is first contextualise this shift in a particular British history, and secondly to elaborate, briefly, a theoretical understanding of racism that can comprehend this change
Cultural racism, if you like, is not new. It has a long-standing history in imperialist ideology, it was central to the foundation of apartheid, it was an alibi of Jim Crow, and it played a crucial supporting role in even the most scientistic and biologically determinist forms of racism – an example being the Nazi extermination of the gypsies which, because of the confusion about their racial status (race theory had it that they were originally Aryan) had to be justified in part on the grounds of culture, namely the allegedly anti-social propensities of gypsies, a stereotype that is still with is today when we hear scaremongering stories about Roma gypsies and Travellers.
But the shift in emphasis in racist ideologies that we see today really began after WWII, and in the UK it tracked a move from an aggressive global white supremacism to a defensive white nationalism. In the immediate years after the war, British capitalism faced a number of challenges. It faced the rising dominion of the United States alongside its own diminishing ability to maintain its colonies, losing the ‘jewel of the empire’s crown’, India, in 1947. It faced a national economy with labour shortages, and labour insurgency. Many of its core industries were weak, and nationalisation was the only answer in some cases. The British state, under both Labour and Tory governments, elaborated a consensual answer to this, a social democratic settlement based on extensive public ownership, the pursuit of economic stability through Keynesian demand management, and the maintenance of some form of British dominion through a close, though subordinate, relationship with the United States, which was then encroaching on many of its colonies and ex-colonies. To answer the labour shortage, it was agreed that some 1.25m workers were needed. There was a bipartisan belief that Britain could not tolerate a rapid influx of non-white workers from the ‘New Commonwealth’ – for the sake of social peace, they maintained that such immigrants as did arrive in the UK had to be of “good stock”, which meant white.
There was at that time freedom of movement within the UK and colonies. Subjects of the colonies had their status confirmed as ‘Citizen of the UK and Colonies’ in 1948. But the state preferred not to encourage such migration if they could avoid it. Inevitably, the needs of capital meant that at first small numbers of African-Caribbean migrants started to arrive in the UK. And the state responded by trying to come up with ways to discriminate against non-white labour without appearing to do so. In 1962, with the passing of the Commonwealth Immigration Act, they hit upon a legal measure that would enable the government to discriminate through the use of quotas. Now this wasn’t because the demand for migrant labour had fallen. Actually, by 1982, about 80% of ‘New Commonwealth’ migrants who lived in the UK had arrived after 1962. What the legislation did was not reduce the amount of black and Asian workers moving to then UK, but make their citizenship – remember they were citizens – dependent on the needs of capital. If the demand for labour fell, the quotas could be tightened. And Labour, in time-honoured fashion, opposed the legislation for a bunch of racist eyewash in opposition, but embraced it and tightened its provisions with further legislation once in office.
In that climate of a racist state crackdown on immigration, right-wing Tory politicians began to find that they could gain support not only for themselves but for a whole policy mix that challenged the social democratic consensus by attacking immigrants in the name of a politics of ‘the nation’. The most notorious example of this trend is Enoch Powell, who had until he lost the 1965 Tory leadership election, never expressed anti-immigrant sentiment. He had always been a right-wing free marketeer, and he was a committed imperialist. He had entertained ambitions to become Viceroy of India, the local proxy to the British crown, and about as close to being a King as the progeny of lower-middle class Black Country folks could dream of being. His attitude on migration was shaped by this imperial perspective. As long as Britain could dominate non-white labour through empire, it didn’t need immigration restrictions. But from 1967 he began to attack immigrants for driving down house prices and making life difficult for white neighbourhoods. The burden of his polemic was that too large a number of immigrants brought with them a culture that was inappropriate to Britain, and which the white majority would not be able to live happily alongside. This was a claim that was given some dubious support in the claims of socio-biology in the 1970s, which maintained that it was natural for people to be hostile to those with whom they were unfamiliar. People had hardwired ‘tribal’ instincts, and the tribe in this case was white Britons.
Such was the politics that the New Right espoused, and it became the basis of Thatcher’s Poujadist crusade after taking the Tory leadership in 1975. Attempting to restore the Conservative Party’s hegemonic role in British politics, she sought to use a kind of authoritarian populism to fuse a new electoral coalition uniting capital with the petit-bourgeoisie and a sector of workers. She notoriously gave an interview in which she referred to a supposed popular fear of being ‘swamped’ by people of other cultures to justify immigration crackdowns. Like Powell before her, her key reference was to nation and culture not biology and skin colour, and her mandate was a sort of ‘common sense’ – if people couldn’t help reacting negatively to ‘outsiders’, then it was not racist but merely an articulation of natural grievances to oppose immigration. Thatcher’s British Nationality Act (1981) crowned the repeated anti-immigrant acts since 1962 by revising the category of ‘Citizen of the UK and Colonies’, and effectively ensuring that primary migration from the ‘New Commonwealth’ came to a near standstill
I would say that this politics of ‘the nation’ was exhausted by the time of the Poll Tax riots. Inner city riots, black political advances both in the trade union movement and in the Labour Party, official multiculturalism and the transformed demographic situation meant that it was impossible for explicitly racist politics to survive in a mainstream electoral vehicle. There were still occasions for politicians to whip up a coded racism toward immigrants. Asylum was the main issue in the 1990s, as the Tories sought to justify blocking the entry of refugees to the United Kingdom – which they really weren’t permitted to do because of Britain’s commitment to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. They did this by trying to find ways to re-classify them as economic migrants, thus subject to the same racist legislation that all other migrants were. The language of the time suggested that asylum seekers were ‘bogus’ – a term first used by Michael Howard as Home Secretary, and then popularised by the media. Refugees, far from being needy, were greedy, anti-social, and parasitic. Britain was a ‘soft touch’.
Again, as is traditional, the Labour Party opposed two rounds of legislation designed to curb asylum rights in the 1990s. But when it came to power, it embraced these laws and added new restrictions including a system of detention camps run by private security firms to imprison refugees while they had their cases processed. Importantly, this was related to another trend in New Labour thinking, which was to revitalise this politics of ‘the nation’ with a new progressive veneer. So while the Lawrence Inquiry delivered a relatively progressive verdict on policing in the UK, David Blunkett was upset by it because he believed that we were not sufficiently proud of “what we’ve got”. The justification for racist immigration legislation in the UK has always been the Powellite one: by controlling the fears of the white majority, it will be possible to legislate against the discrimination of existing ethnic minorities and ensure a tolerant, harmonious society. But in fact the logic, as Roy Hattersley pointed out, is to say that ‘they’ are a problem and a danger who have to be controlled. It leads inescapably to domestic repression and discrimination.
So, fast-forward to 2001, when riots broke out in northern towns and cities. These were places where manufacturing industries were breaking down, where local councils had practised de facto segregation in housing, and where the police had a long-term conflictual relationship with Asian youths. These riots followed racist provocations by fascists and football hooligans in Asian areas, which the police refused to prevent. Instead, when local kids defended themselves, the police suited themselves up in riot gear and attacked the victims. The government response, in the form of the Cantle report, instead of blaming the institutional racism of the police, and the violence of the fascists, was to accuse local Asian communities of being ‘self-segregating’. The problem was that they needed to ‘integrate’. David Blunkett, as Home Secretary, delighted in expressing this integrationist politics in the most provocative manner possible, ordering Asian families to speak English when in their homes and so on. And this became a rallying cry for New Labour-friendly intellectuals, especially in light of the ‘war on terror’, and the drive to contain politically assertive Muslim communities
The long-term effect of this has been to erase oppression, exploitation, inequality and injustice as issues. By treating ‘racial’ issues as problems of how to ensure that everyone internalises some ‘core of Britishness’, whatever that may be, New Labour blamed the victim. It has also led to a situation where significant minorities of the British population feel threatened by mosques, believe that Muslims are given too many advantages, and think the real victims of racism are white. This is obviously related to global dynamics – pressingly, the need to justify the invasion of Iraq by reference to a supposed worldwide threat from ‘radical Muslims’. But it can’t be stressed enough that it is not just a special case inflamed by imperialism, but has roots in the daily processes of British society, and specifically in the insecurity experienced by millions of people, workers and small businessmen, and by the intensified competition that leads people to think that their being unemployed or on low wages is somehow caused by the presence of other workers.
To finish, I want to outline an account of ‘race’ that can help us understand better how culture can replace biology as the main reference for racism, and how Muslims can be subject to racism even though – as many earnest Islamophobes take piteous pains to explain – “Islam ain’t a race”.
First of all, the origins of race as a political category have little to do with the pseudo-scientic anthropological classifications that sprang up in the late eighteenth century, took hold in the nineteenth century and led to colonial genocides and ultimately the Nazi holocaust. Race emerged as a practise before any of these discourses were solidified. According to Theodore Allen, the first example of a racial or perhaps proto-racial system of oppression is in the colonial plantation of Ulster where, he argues, the racialised minority (Catholics) were systematically excluded from certain basic civil, political and legal rights that Protestants, however poor, were entitled to. And this system, pioneered in Ulster, was transplanted to North America’s colonial, indentured labour system. In response to the Bacon Rebellion of 1676, where it seemed possible that a more numerous population of Europeans labourers and farmers might take up arms against their masters and successfully overthrow them, the ruling class began to divide labourers on the basis of new ‘racial’ categories. Whiteness was invented as a legal category, and non-whites were subordinate in various ways – African labour was demoted to chattel slavery with no prospect of manumission, while Native Americans were subject to extermination where they could not be ‘Christianised’. It is important to see that this couldn’t have happened without the emergence of a specifically capitalist social order, as it was the emerging norm of free labour with equal political and citizenship rights that was being tested on the colonial frontiers. And stratifying workers by ‘race’ was a very effective way of depriving some workers of those full rights, and ultimately of reducing the total bargaining power and long-term remuneration of those workers.
That being the case, ‘racialization’ is a process, a political act, and not a static category. Throughout the 19th Century, ‘race-making’ processes were very important to American capital, and David Roediger has written of industry’s use of ‘race management’, wherein different groups of workers would be assigned different payrolls and statuses based on race, nationality, gender, etc. Many groups of workers who would today be called ‘white’ were not necessarily ‘white’ in the 19th Century – Jews, the Irish, Hungarians, Poles, Italians, and so on. They had to fight a socio-political struggle to achieve ‘whiteness’. Other groups, such as Indian Americans, who fought legal battles to win ‘whiteness’, (on the basis of their ‘Aryan’ roots), were unsuccessful. The demarcations of ‘scientific racism’ were usually not strictly relevant to these processes. Indeed, like fascism, racism could be said to be a ‘scavenger ideology’, appropriating ideological bric-a-brac from other traditions – incorporating regional, national, ethnic, religious, class and gender stereotypes. Biology just happens to be the most convenient form of essentialism.
Once this is understood, it is easy to see how Muslims in particular have been subject to ‘race-making’ processes. I will argue that this is happening in the following ways: 1) Muslims are subject to suspicion and hostility in the press, and to persecution from politicians who spread moral panics alleging that they are not ‘fitting in’, and that their customs are somehow a threat to ‘British values’. They are held collectively responsible for acts of terrorism by Muslims, though not even the Prime Minister is prepared to be held responsible for acts of terrorism by the British armed forces; 2) They are subject to political oppression in the form of police harassment, beatings, internment, kidnapping, torture flights, and in some extreme cases, unlawful shootings by police; 3) They are increasingly subject to politicised surveillance, particularly on university campuses, and recently through CCTV recording of goings on in estates in Birmingham; 4) Partly as a consequence of the above, they are more likely to be subject to racist violence and harassment in communities. A study by the University of Essex found a direct correlation between political statements and media reports vilifying Muslims, and violence by fascist and racist thugs on the streets. Thus, Muslims are de facto deprived of the normal range of political and civil rights that every other member of the society claims, and stigmatised with the usual racialising tropes to justify this. The role that this fulfils for the state is to manage a potentially troublesome minority that has suffered particularly from the evisceration of manufacturing economies, from the low wage economy of neoliberalism, while offering everyone else the false security of a robust national belonging. This preserves a divided, stratified labour market in which Muslims are generally among those who suffer lower pay, higher unemployment, less access to good education and more bruising confrontations with the criminal justice system. That is how race-making lends itself as easily to creed as to colour.
This doesn’t have to stay that way, of course. It may be that biological racial schemas, anti-Semitism, and old school Nazism will return with force. The longer the crisis goes on, the more that millions are exposed to life-wrecking capitalist degeneration, and the less that the Left does to combat racism, the greater are the chances of that happening. But it’s important to recognise that fascism doesn’t necessarily need the biological race theories of the Third Reich, and we shouldn’t expect tomorrow’s enemies to look the same as yesterday’s.
And it is a defeat inflicted by the trade union membership, which is beginning to rally itself for a fightback against the Tory cuts package. If they didn't want to sack the Blairites in this context, I think we'd have grounds for being deeply worried. As it is, I am still encouraged by this result, and I think it will give some more confidence to workers on the frontline organising against the cuts - particularly if, as I suspect may happen, Ed Balls becomes the shadow chancellor. This, for me, is what it's really about. The class struggle always plays out in the Labour Party in a particular way. The question is whether the labour movement is prepared to have a political leadership that is in many ways hostile to the organised working class, openly spurning the unions; or whether it wants a traditionally Labourist leadership that seeks to represent the working class politically while trying to reconcile its interests with those of 'the nation' - ie national competitiveness, ie capital. This is not an inconsequential difference for the working class. Unless there is a concrete, left-wing alternative to Labourism available to us, then the political project associated with Blairism - of replacing social democracy with bourgeois liberalism, in imitation of the US Democratic Party - was always going to be catastrophic for the working class. So, the defeat of Blairism is a step forward.
Sadly, the result also comes with a sour lesson in how weak the Labour Left is, as Diane Abbott actually received fewer votes than Andy Burnham. I know from bitter arguments online and in the flesh that many left-wing Labour members didn't support Diane, ostensibly on grounds that I think are preposterous - her son's private education came up a lot, as did her television appearances with Michael Portillo. In reality, I think these rationalisations had little to do with it. The Labour Left is still deeply demoralised, and scarred, by years of Blairism. It is also numerically depleted by the mass defections of the Blair era. Milibandism of the 'Ed' variety is their dipping their toes in some moderate waters which, if successful, might encourage them to become more adventurous later on.
The trouble is that, as one particularly astute Twitterer pointed out yesterday, the Labour Right is never going to accept the leadership of a trade union-friendly centre-left. They're already sending out signals of a bitter turf war that they're prepared to wage in the coming years, with the help of their contacts in the Murdoch papers. The slightest sign of any deviation from orthodoxy will be the subject of relentless flack and destabilisation. The capitalist media is already on the attack over trade union members determining the outcome of a leadership election - the idea that a future Prime Minister could owe his position to bolshy toilers offends their sensibilities. We need a strong Left, both inside and outside of the Labour Party, to keep pressure on the new leadership. Inevitably, Ed Miliband will let down his supporters, and he may not even survive the next five years. The question then will be whether the party comes back under the control of the Blairites, or whether the pressure from the rank and file keeps the right-wing on the back foot.
Saturday, September 25, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
While conservatism is an ideology of reaction—originally against the French Revolution, more recently against the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies—the nature and dynamics of that reaction have not been well understood. Far from yielding a knee-jerk and unreflexive de fense of an unchanging old regime or a staid but thoughtful tradition alism, the reactionary imperative presses conservatism in two rather different directions: first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes...
Thursday, September 23, 2010
You may recall Margaret Thatcher showing her undying love for the man’s work when she famously brought a copy of his ‘Constitution of Liberty’ to the despatch box. Let’s not forget that this was a man who called for a “libertarian anti-labour union movement of workers to combat the trade union monopolists”. This is what the Conservatives based their industrial relations revolution on.
Under the guise of wanting to protect trade union members’ democratic rights, the Tories sought to limit autonomy in the way unions conducted strike ballots. What they did not take into account was the unique nature of industrial democracy and the collectivist ideals that underpinned the entire movement. They certainly did not consider unions as multifaceted organisations with a variety of representative structures.
For example, large unions used to gauge membership opinion using different methods depending on whether the dispute was local, regional or national. It can be argued that the lack of autonomy to estimate membership support for strike action in urgent situations can actually prolong disputes. Compulsory postal balloting also took away the collective social process that is endemic to the workplace ballot. Basically, it was a ridiculous idea to impose libertarian ideals on trade unions.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
First of all, I must lay out my on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand/stating the patently obvious position. From what little I have read and seen on this subject, I suspect that on this issue the 'new atheists' are correct, and that Ratzinger is indeed every bit as indictable as they say he is - just as in general they are correct to charge religion, and not merely its institutions, with promoting patriarchy, oppression and ignorance. On the other hand, that is not all that religion does. I myself have religious friends and comrades who make far better allies of Enlightenment, and of the oppressed and exploited, than a great many of those who claim to be atheists. Religion is not only far from being the major force promoting oppression in this world - for some, it is an inspiration and an alibi in the struggle against it. The diversity of interpretations of religious doctrine, especially on social and political matters, simply does not support any narrow, literalist reading off of prescriptions from texts. I note, with some satisfaction, that for all the theological ignorance of Dawkins et al (an ignorance which, I hasten to add, I share), they are at one with the fundamentalists on the stable meaning of religion and its texts.
Further, I don't accept the explanations of child rape within the Catholic church which attribute it to Catholic practises producing sexual repression - as if were priests allowed to marry, they would not be tempted to abuse boys from the laity. Sexual repression is regrettable in itself, but I doubt that it produces predatory child rapists. The rape of children typically takes place in institutions and situations where adults have too much unaccountable power over children - in children's homes, and in families, for example. The principle of patriarchy does not begin and end in church, and it does not operate in isolation from institutions of the body politic which demean, control, vilify and commodify children, the better to socialise them for a world in which they are commodities, the better to make them governable. If the Catholic church hierarchy is implicated in this scandal, this does not necessarily support the wider arguments of the 'new atheists' on religion, least of all their reductionist account of religion as a sole and sufficient cause of so many more ills than it can plausibly have produced, which we will come back to. Even so, on the face of it, it is quite sensible to protest against a pope with such a record.
That said, some left-wingers looked askance at the weekend's protest, and at the smug bourgeois secularists around 'Ditchkins'. For although the spectacle over the weekend was one of secular protest against theocratic patriarchy, the issue is saturated with meanings that extend well beyond this. This is, after all, a country with an established Anglican church. There is still a dominative Anglo-Saxon culture at work, whose supremacist posture was quite explicit not so very long ago. It is a country which still has an imperial relationship of sorts to Catholics in the north of Ireland, and where there is still a toxic residue of anti-Catholic bigotry - more than a residue in Scotland and Ulster. While I myself was never one of the 'Billy Boys', I was exposed to enough of this bigotry to know it when I see it. I also know imperial condescension when I see it - when I first came to England and found that people here believed that Northern Ireland was torn apart for thirty years or so because of religious sectarianism, because Prods didn't get on with Tims, I was shocked. And I was offended, as I still am when I think of it. When Dawkins et al repeat this ridiculous canard and apply the same logic, mutatis mutandis, to the explanation of the Israel-Palestine conflict (or worse, to the 'civil war' in Iraq), I know all too well that this isn't really about atheism, or secularism. It is about representing those who do not partake of the relative wealth and stability of the Anglophone imperial core as tribal-minded, bloodthirsty, backward idiots. We do not have conflicts based on rational interests, each making a claim to universalism, in which imperialist powers have weighed in on one side. We have petty, parochial struggles over atavistic ideas which are childish premonitions of modern, scientific truth claims, and where imperial power is invisible. Indeed, as Eagleton suggests, part of the whole basis of Dawkinsian befuddlement and outrage over religion is the feeling that things couldn't be so bad as to require a spiritual, much less messianic, solution. Class privilege benights its beneficiaries in this respect.
So, when secularists protest against the Pope, and not against the established church which has far more political clout in the United Kingdom than does the papacy, I can well understand why some Catholics would feel that their faith, their Church, was being singled out. I do not think that most of those protesting against the pope were motivated by bigotry - far from it. Rather, the spectacle was a knowingly vacuous performance, a simulacrum of a political-cum-journalistic campaign whose apparently determinate goals are really empty gestures. There were calls for the pope to be 'arrested', for example. Fair enough. There is prima facie evidence that the man with a crook may be a crook, and it's an amusing idea. But presumably such a campaign should have more immediate, more tangible, more attainable goals. Did it? Not so far as I can see. Did the protest mobilise significant social forces, outwith bourgeois liberals? Did it perhaps tie into the intra-Catholic campaigns for justice for the victims of rape, or indeed any other significant campaign? Did it add anything to the fightback against a resurgent patriarchy? I don't think so. It was pure street theatre, and at that more 'Theatre of the Absurd' than 'Theatre of the Oppressed'. It confirmed that those who had turned out were part of an embattled minority defending science, enlightenment and liberal values. Rather than offering a model of humanism that could transcend the divisions and sectarianism that bourgeois liberals accuse religion of producing, it made a spectacle of difference, in particular of their own alienation from, and condescension toward, the religious.
Significantly, or perhaps predictably depending on your viewpoint, the leading 'new atheists', notably Dawkins and Sam Harris, are purveyors of a reactionary, reductionist biologism that naturalises an extremely savage neoliberal order, featuring the gene as a utility maximiser. That is their 'materialism', which they range against the claims of religion. (Hitchens merely duplicates this reductionism in his own bestselling addition to the God non-debate). The claims of evolutionary psychology have long fuelled reaction over gender, race and class, and have evidently provided a far more compelling narrative of the inevitability of patriarchy, inequality and bigotry than religious texts. The latter may have a peculiar importance in the United States, from 19th Century pro-slavery arguments through Jim Crow and beyond, but the seminal texts justifying and re-coding inequality and oppression today adopt the forms of reductionist evolutionary psychology. Thus, some of those assailing religion have themselves played a key role in naturalising patriarchy and white supremacy, even though they always insisted that this was not their intention. Dawkins would argue that "genetic kinship" and reciprocation offer an explanation of, and evolutionary basis for, solidarity, equality and altruism amid the cruel, harsh and competitive world that his version of Darwinism evokes. But this is neither orthodox Darwinism, nor is it adequate. It does not explain the range of sacrifices that some people are prepared to make for others. The theory of gene kinship entails, as per Haldane's quip, that one will sacrifice oneself for other people who are genetically close to oneself. That would lead us logically to insularity rather than universalism. Indeed, for Dawkins' case to work, he has to suggest that we can subvert our 'selfish', competitive, vicious biological basis through a metaphysically strong 'free will', which is ultimately every bit as idealist as any statement made from the Vatican.
Dawkins' own free will still seems to be constrained by his selfish, competitive genes, however. To the imperial chauvinism mentioned above, we could add his intolerance of cultural difference - he has said, for example, that he experiences a visceral revulsion at the sight of a woman in a burqa, a sensation which is probably similar to that which I feel on witnessing an upper middle class white Oxonian telling Muslim women that what they're wearing disgusts him. In relation to the Pope's visit, he described his Romanness as the head of the second most evil religion in the world. What, I wonder, might come first? Buddhism? Judaism? Hinduism? Jainism? Zoroastrianism? No? Ah, right - so it'll be Islam again. One form of religious intolerance informs another prejudice, one which is bound up with race-making processes across the 'white' world. Such a ranking of religions according to alleged harm is not really to do with atheism. Far from having an emancipatory, enlightened content, it precisely reinforces a hierarchical ordering of human societies and cultures at the apex of which invariably sits largely bourgeois, largely white, and largely male liberals of no faith, other than in the sanctity of the Holy Profit. For these and other reasons, the 'new atheism' is mainly a reactionary current, and I would hesitate to join those leftists and feminists who are tempted to applaud protests in its name.
It's crap, of course. What Cable favours is a better regulated capitalism with a humbled financial sector, but he knows he can't even deliver that while he's a helpmeet to George Osborne, the trust fund chancellor who is one of the many millionaires in the Tory front bench, and who is committed to defending a robust, liberated financial sector. The "capitalism" that he impugns is a particularly rapacious form of financialisation, and I don't believe he's winning the policy arguments in the cabinet. Still, he feels he has to name and shame the system in a way that most bourgeois politicians haven't done for decades. Undoubtedly this is intended to staunch the flow of defecting voters, members and councillors, while re-asserting Cable's reputation as a sort of maverick - a reputation that has already been soiled and bloodied due to his involvement in this savage and unpopular austerity agenda. Undoubtedly, it is meant to reassure the dissenters that the 'instincts' of the Liberal leadership are still basically decent and socially conscious, and that they have not been captured by 'sectional' interests, ie those of capital.
Whether anyone buys it or not is almost secondary. That capitalism is a system that people acquiesce in and tolerate for want of an organised alternative is increasingly obvious. That the vast majority of people blame capitalists and bankers for the austerity agenda, more so than they blame anyone else, is also clear in the polls. The interesting thing will be how Labour MPs respond. I am certain that the reflex of most of the leadership candidates will be to defend "capitalism", and to complain about Cable's empty promises and to agree with Lord Turner that it's policy that counts not greed, etc etc. So it is that a right-wing, senior cabinet member in a hard right government perpetrating an unprecedented attack on the welfare state ends up saying what few social democrats have dared say since the defeat of the miners.
Monday, September 20, 2010
These are terrible times for many people in this country. Poverty, especially acute poverty, has soared in the economic slump; millions of people have lost their homes. Young people can’t find jobs; laid-off 50-somethings fear that they’ll never work again.
Yet if you want to find real political rage — the kind of rage that makes people compare President Obama to Hitler, or accuse him of treason — you won’t find it among these suffering Americans. You’ll find it instead among the very privileged, people who don’t have to worry about losing their jobs, their homes, or their health insurance, but who are outraged, outraged, at the thought of paying modestly higher taxes.
The rage of the rich has been building ever since Mr. Obama took office. At first, however, it was largely confined to Wall Street. Thus when New York magazine published an article titled “The Wail Of the 1%,” it was talking about financial wheeler-dealers whose firms had been bailed out with taxpayer funds, but were furious at suggestions that the price of these bailouts should include temporary limits on bonuses. When the billionaire Stephen Schwarzman compared an Obama proposal to the Nazi invasion of Poland, the proposal in question would have closed a tax loophole that specifically benefits fund managers like him.
Now, however, as decision time looms for the fate of the Bush tax cuts — will top tax rates go back to Clinton-era levels? — the rage of the rich has broadened, and also in some ways changed its character.
For one thing, craziness has gone mainstream. It’s one thing when a billionaire rants at a dinner event. It’s another when Forbes magazine runs a cover story alleging that the president of the United States is deliberately trying to bring America down as part of his Kenyan, “anticolonialist” agenda, that “the U.S. is being ruled according to the dreams of a Luo tribesman of the 1950s.” When it comes to defending the interests of the rich, it seems, the normal rules of civilized (and rational) discourse no longer apply.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
To be sure, their power isn’t what it used to be. Membership has declined sharply, from 13m in the early 1980s to just over half that today (see chart). And trade unionism has become concentrated in the public sector, where 57% of employees are members compared with just 15% of privately employed workers. That weakening has been accompanied by a period of unusually serene industrial relations. Official records dating back to 1891 suggest that strikes have never been as infrequent as they are today. Twice as many days were lost to walkouts in 1984 alone as in the two decades since 1990.
Nevertheless, the unions are far from a spent force: the 7m Britons who still carry union cards remain, collectively, an important social movement (by comparison, only around 4m people attend church once a month or more). Concentration in the public sector has helped to preserve their power. Strikes by transport workers can cause chaos if commuters are unable to get to work. A recent two-day walkout by workers on the London Underground, for example, caused widespread disruption in the capital; one estimate, from the London Chamber of Commerce, put the cost to firms at £48m ($75m) a day. A full-blown rail strike would be much worse. A walkout by teachers would require millions of parents to stay at home minding their children; binmen could leave the streets as filthy as some were in the “winter of discontent”; and so on.
Predictably, of course, this is a justification for capital to call for further restrictions on union power, but the palpable sense of panic in the Economist's analysis is too delicious for words.
International Socialism journal presents a one day conference on the twin crises of the liberal world—the economic crisis and the crisis of imperialism.
Chris Bambery (author, 'A Rebel's Guide to Gramsci', ISJ editorial board).
Alex Callinicos (Author, 'Bonfire of Illusions, 'Imperialism and Global Political Economy' and editor of International Socialism).
Joseph Choonara (author, 'Unravelling Capitalism', ISJ editorial board).
Panos Garganas (editor of the Greek newspaper Workers' Solidarity).
Mike Gonzalez (author, 'Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, 'A Rebel's Guide to Marx', ISJ editorial board).
Jane Hardy (author, 'Poland's New Capitalism', ISJ editorial board).
Marnie Holborow (author, 'The Politics of English').
Boris Kagarlitsky (author, 'The Politics of Empire', 'The Twilight of Globalisation').
Richard Seymour (author, 'The Liberal Defence of Murder', 'The Meaning of David Cameron', ISJ editorial board).
The twin crises of the neoliberal world.
Imperialism contained? Russia and Latin America.
Racism, the far right and the crisis.
The struggle against austerity in Europe.
Time: Saturday, September 25 · 9:30am - 5:00pm
Location: Charles Wilson Building, Glasgow University, G12 8QQ
9.30am - 5pm
Tickets £10 waged/£5 unwaged.
Contact Gregor on 07738 334724 for more details.
For transport information, call Ben: 07805 590391.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
Anyone who has been on jobseekers' allowance, for example, would be entitled to feel both insulted and threatened by Clegg's trite remarks. The amount given to those seeking work is just the bare minimum that the government deems will cover a 'basket of goods' (food, travel, toiletries) to enable an individual to live a relatively spartan life while seeking employment. No one is being compensated - they are being kept alive. The system prevents high structural unemployment from wiping out much of the population, or forcing it into criminal, black market activities. Cutting those benefits is an attack on the life chances of millions of unemployed workers.
On top of that, if it weren't for a whole network of other public goods, such as libraries with free internet access and newspapers, this level of income would indeed be a trap. After all, how can one compete for jobs in today's labour market without regular internet access? Few people on benefits actually have internet in their homes. Or public transport. How could one travel to and from job interviews, if it weren't for an effective public transport system? How could one afford the journey, or a suit to wear, if it wasn't for various kinds of reimbursement that one can claim from the job centre? And healthcare. People living on jobseekers' allowance tend to have poorer diets and are vulnerable to illness. If it wasn't for free GP access, and free prescriptions for those out of work, their life chances would be sharply reduced. Which makes it all the more ironic that this is a government that is attacking not just benefits, but all of the various components of the welfare state, while at the same time removing the public sector investment that is sustaining employment. At the same time, they will be seeking to raise the pension age, so that more people are in the labour market for longer, thus increasing the amount of structural unemployment. The spiel about 'welfare dependency' is a crock - they are knowingly making it so that more people find it more and more difficult to escape unemployment.
Before the election, Clegg was seen by many as an honest broker, a fresh face unbeholden to 'sectionalism' in the best tradition of liberalism. But he has emerged as yet another spokesperson for the interests of capital. He is part of a Tory government, therefore part of a government of big business. That was the basis of the coalition pact. And, moreover, this isn't an unnatural position for the Liberals to be in. It is alleged by certain parties to the Lib-Lab negotiations back in May that the Liberals proved even more hawkish in negotiations than the Tories were in public, pushing the agenda on cuts well to the right. I find this all too believable. And thus, the Liberal leadership grabbed with both hands the opportunity to shed that aura of centre-left probity painstakingly accumulated by Charles Kennedy in the tradition of Jeremy Thorpe and Jo Grimond. Their standing in the polls has for now stabilised at between 12 and 14% - still too high in my opinion, but, if it holds, their lowest standing since the 1979 general election when David Steel crashed to 13.8% in the polls. In short, the long-term benefit to the Liberals from the division in the Labour coalition in 1981 is being reversed by this apparently very short-sighted Orange Book leadership.
I take delight in the Liberals' woes. This is not just because of my burning hatred for this coalition, and my probably unwarranted shock at the Liberals' decision to team up with the Tories. It is mainly because the defection of millions of voters from the Liberals is most likely to be a class conscious act, by former Labour supporters in working class heartlands. I take heart from that, and from the prospect of the centre vote being destroyed by the worst capitalist crisis in living memory. The coalition's 'mandate' is weak. The majority of people do not support the coalition's plans. 22% of people back the government's cuts. 37% support the lesser, more gradual cuts that Labour proposed at the last election. 37% of people don't want any part of the cuts, and favour protecting jobs and the vulnerable above tending to the deficit. This suggests that the arguments of the Left and the unions are starting to have an impact, despite having precious little coverage in the media. These arguments, favouring a version of left-Keynesianism, are entirely incompatible with the official programme of any of the three major parties, but they provide a good basis for some sort of 'action programe' that the left can unite around, and which can inform the practise of community activists and trade union militants.
Of course, it helps that Labour's current leadership race is forcing some of the contenders to sound a little bit more left on the cuts than they actually are, adapting to Diane Abbott's argument that the cuts are not necessary. While the Milibands are sticking pretty much to the cuts package announced by Labour at the last election, hedged with a lot of mealy mouthed language about 'credibility', Ed Balls, who sunk his own campaign early on with his crass, racist intervention on immigration, has said that we shouldn't even be talking about cuts at this point. But as is often the case, opinion is solidifying against the government's austerity agenda without much lead from national politicians, and amid a near Orwellian campaign in the media to advise in the most shrill, strident terms that "there's no money left".
If 'public opinion' is turning against the government, industrial action is likely to weaken its position further. Polls have recently suggested that 35% of people at the moment favour industrial action to fight cuts, and 45% of people would oppose it. Caveats apply to these, as to all poll findings, and no industrial strategy should be exclusively based on such evidence. But in my opinion, this does mean that the argument is wide open. 35% of people saying they back strike action when, as the poll was taken, only the left-wing trade union leaders and the revolutionary left had openly called for it, is quite a good number to work with. All of the anti-cuts coalitions springing up locally can take heart in this, in the negative approval ratings for the coalition, in the polls showing majority opposition to the cuts, and in the growing but very substantial and potentially organised minority who advocate a completely different programme altogether.
National strike action, coordinated to some degree, is now inevitable. The coalition is making it so. Socialist Worker's analysis argues that the TUC is moving to the Left, propelled (all too slowly) in that direction by the sheer aggression of the Tory cuts and the anger of the rank and file. The conference in Manchester has been marked by almost complete unanimity on the seriousness of the threat, and the need for united action including joint industrial action as well as community campaigning to resist these cuts. Trade unionists recognise that they have a fight for survival on their hands. But so do the young, pensioners, the unemployed, students, and those workers who aren't represented by a union.
That is why it is essential that these anti-cuts coalitions continue to be built, from the ground up, involving all of those affected, and everyone who wants to fight, such that when the workers go out on strike they do so with established roots in local communities, as part of, with the support of, and on behalf of those communities. But they should not stop at the local level. The working class has been too divided and atomised over recent years to put up adequate resistance to the neoliberal agenda. The aim must be to combine all of these coalitions and groups into a national movement that can both defeat the Tories long before their term expires, and form a popular bulwark against sell-outs by whatever Labour leadership emerges after the elections. Because if labour history has taught us anything, it is that what the Tories fail to do by aggression, Labour can often do through cooptation. Whether or not the goal proves possible, it is unrealistic to aim for anything less. Either the left and the labour movement get their act together at this pivotal moment, or they will be destroyed by the coming onslaught, and we will have a future in which Nick Clegg occupies the farthest left of bourgeois politics, with a right-wing increasingly defined by petit-bourgeois reactionaries and fascist provocateurs. Imagine - it would be like living in America.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
As Gary Younge reports, the Republican establishment did not want her as the candidate, because the Democrats can beat her. You can see the line coming: Republicans have been taken over by extremists, this is not what America is about. I don't think this is an electoral threat for the time being. I expect that the Democrats will probably win Delaware, and anywhere else that the Tea Partiers claim the Republican nomination. The Democratic base that has been demoralised and insulted by the Obama camp for the last couple of years will probably turn out if there is any chance of some of these racist lunatics taking power.
But it does show how a capitalism in crisis, without a rational alternative clearly available, backed by substantial social forces rooted in the working class, unleashes and amplifies all of the most reactionary and socially regressive elements in society. As Gary Younge puts it, people can't eat hope. With unemployment at historic highs, investment low, banks refusing to lend, foreclosures proceeding apace, the insecurity of the middle classes - for I think you'd find the Tea Partiers are largely middle class white Americans - is becoming poisonous.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Contrary to the Tories' refrain that private sector growth is required, the state has to provide much of the growth in the coming period, to make up for the feebleness of the private sector, where few are investing, and few lending (even if a new round of debt/speculation-based growth was desirable). Cutting spending at this point, especially to the degree Chancellor Gideon is contemplating, may be like dragging an ailing British capitalism off the life support, humping it out of the hospital, kicking it through the doors and saying "now walk, you bastard". Even Jesus wouldn't be that arrogant.
The political risk to the government, if it insists on pursuing these cuts despite nervous warnings coming from the OECD and IMF, is not negligible. Andrew Rawnsley reports that cabinet members are terrified of what's being imposed on them, which is to be - as was expected - far deeper than anything Thatcher achieved in the 1980s. Of course, there are politically easy cuts, but these are the least effective. Cutting funding for the arts, for example. The Tories can always paint that (wrongly) as money for millionaires. But cutting education, health, pensions, justice, disability benefits... not only will this hammer the working class, it will also, by dint of its effects on the wider economy, yank the rug out from under the feet of Tories' middle class voting base. The coalition's approval ratings are well into the red, and at their lowest level since the elections. The Tories still get the benefit of the doubt from their core vote and a segment of 'swing voters', but if the IMF is right, that political credit will be rapidly withdrawn, and payment demanded with interest in a relatively brief period of time. I suppose, then, the question is whether the Conservative Party is prepared to be a kamikaze squad for capital - because if, as Mervyn King predicted before the election, the austerity programme finishes it off for a generation, it can't very well be the dominant party of capital afterwards.
Now, a spokesman for the Police Superintendents' Association warns that cuts will produce such grave social disorder that the police will struggle to contain it - and look at the hysterical reaction from the Telegraph. The copper's behaving like a trade unionist! The worst thing imaginable! Undoubtedly there's an element of the police trying to protect their turf from the Tories' promised cutbacks, but it's also a realistic intervention. In the 1980s, the police bureaucracy often complained about its forces being used as a shovel to clean up the shit unleashed by social destructive Tory policies. This is not because the coppers are a humanitarian body. But the last thing they want is to be faced with an angry, insubordinate population which their best forces and superior organisation can't deal with. If the Tories are going to turn the country into a social wasteland, they at least want enough men with appropriate powers and weaponry to be able to keep it under control. But the dilemma of austerity is that if they're determined to reduce spending to the extent that they are (while protecting Trident and NATO commitments), they have to seek cuts in all possible areas.
Of course, the risk is not only to the government. Stathis Kouvelakis writes on the attempted imposition of the "shock doctrine" in Greece, which basically involves creating a state of emergency in order to engineer support for a qualitative, lasting change in the social fabric, a "neoliberal purge". His conclusion is that if the Left and the popular forces in Greece are unable to meet this challenge, "they will be swept away by the dislocation of social relations and the rise of despair and, probably, of the most reactionary and regressive tendencies within society". It is not hard to see how similar prospects pose themselves in different ways across Europe, and in the UK. We are waging a difficult firefight with the far right, though their forces are as yet fractious and limited. If we don't effectively resist these cuts, and out of that resistance rebuild some basic grassroots left, with resilient community organisation and a much more democratic and popular trade union movement, then we could be devastated by the oncoming tide.
Those are the stakes we have to prepare for. The government has been preparing for this for more than a year, and it still isn't ready for the consequences.